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Digital Switching: Packing a boatload of benefits

Every so often a technology comes along that seems to have only upsides. Digital switching is one of them. Not only does it simplify and centralize much of the onboard electrical circuitry, digital switching is also robust and easily expandable. What’s more, it eliminates the maze of traditional wiring connections, switches, fuses and other components that are potential trouble spots, which can lead to failures.

Earlier this year Marine Electronics Journal ran an article by longtime MEJ contributor Ev Collier about digital switching that includes comments from the experts who sell, install and service onboard systems. We’re bringing you excerpts in a two-part series. The first installment is below. We’ll conclude the series next week.

By Ev Collier

Digital switching systems—DSS—are not new. They’ve been around for more than 10 years, but they’re caught the fancy of the marine community in a big way only in the past few years or so. As one of the newer hot trends in marine electrical systems, DSS is commonplace on larger, high-end boats and is beginning to penetrate the smaller-boat market.

"We have been wiring new vessels with digital switching systems since 2009, some with as many as 150 switched circuits,” says Rufus Van Gruisen, owner of Cay Electronics in Portsmouth, RI. "We prefer systems that use an NMEA 2000 communication bus and that can be programmed, or at least modified, by our own technicians. The ease of use, reliability and added features provided by these systems have proven to be popular with our customers.” He says with other systems making small changes to settings may mean "referring back to the manufacturer to have them make the required change to the software.”

Peter Braffitt, General Manager of Gemeco Marine Accessories, agrees. "I feel that one of the most advantageous reasons to add digital switching over NMEA 2000 is that it can be serviced by any NMEA-trained tech, compared to a proprietary OEM system that is purpose-built for that boat and very difficult to be serviced in the field. Expanding that system is also costly since the programming is proprietary, but adding on to an NMEA 2000-based system can be generally handled by any NMEA-trained tech.”

Van Gruisen points to a long list of DSS benefits beyond what those we’ve already mentioned, including: more sophisticated circuit control, such as dimming, soft start for motor; multiple switch locations; and on/off vessel control from an iPad or smartphone. Also monitoring, such as amp draw in individual circuits, alarms if a motor is drawing above normal current, and one-button scene setting for storing pre-set switch configurations for Day Anchor, Night Anchor, Day Motoring, Night Motoring, etc.

Todd Tally, Sales Manager at Atlantic Marine Electronics, New Gretna, NJ, says digital switching systems are the obvious progression of current technologies and represent a lot of positive attributes. "I’m excited to watch and be a part of their development and implementation,” he says.

But he adds a caveat. "From an integrator’s perspective I am cautious and concerned as we continuously expand on interoperability between systems onboard during this development and growth stage. With these integrated systems, if and when there is a glitch it may sometimes require extensive troubleshooting to recreate a customer’s complaint and expedite a resolution. This presents a challenge in the recreational space that I work in as customers have high expectations of realizing their time they schedule for boating to be a positive experience.”

Bill Byers of Marine Electronic Solutions in West Palm Beach, FL, has been working with DSS for about five years, mostly on recreational powerboats ranging up to 140 feet. The dealership is also involved in CZone systems on Boston Whalers at the factory level. Lately he says most of his Boston Whaler work is dealing with module failures and add-ons and programming glitches rather than new installs because that is being done in the factory.

Asked about the learning curve with CZone systems, he says you need a solid technical and computer background because there’s a lot of programming involved. Nonetheless, he says, they’re seeing more and more digital switching. "It’s a great technology and where a lot of boats are heading.”

CZone has long been a global leader in marine electrical systems and components, and more recently has taken an industry leadership role in DSS via its digital control and monitoring products. In a CZone system, NMEA 2000 backbone cables and interfaces replace traditional wiring and hardware and facilitate system integration and automation. DSS benefits include less cabling, thus less weight, no central breaker panel, centralized control from MFD screens, and more.

Van Gruisen says Simrad partnered with CZone nearly a decade ago, and that Mastervolt integrated their devices with CZone after their parent company purchased CZone. Nearly three years ago Garmin integrated their plotters with CZone. Earlier this year, Garmin purchased Trigentic, manufacturer of the EmpirBus system, which is now the basis of Raymarine’s digital switching systems.

In 2017, Furuno joined hands with CZone to develop a fully integrated system that enables the monitoring and control of a vessel’s entire lineup of electronics and utilities equipment via Furuno’s NavNet TZtouch multi-function display (MFD). The system brings the simplified sophistication of one-touch control to vessels of all sizes.

Reducing failures at sea

Beyond all of those benefits, DSS offers another huge advantage: fewer onboard failures of electrical components. The major causes of boat breakdowns at sea are engine failure and electrical system faults. Of those breakdowns caused by engine problems, a significant portion is due to the failure of electrical components in the engine electrical system. BoatUS reports that nearly half of fires on boats are due to electrical system failures—corrosion in wiring splices and connections, switches, fuse blocks, terminal blocks, etc.

A basic wiring circuit for one bilge pump (see below) contains several components: the battery, a fuse block, terminal strip and the pump plus connections, most of which are exposed to the salt-laden environment. Every one is a potential failure point. Multiply that by the total number of onboard circuits—VHF, fishfinder, AIS, and radar, to name a few—and we’re talking about a lot of switches, fuses, connection/splices and wire and deterioration caused by corrosion in the marine environment. DSS eliminates many of these potential failures.

MFDs: The brain behind digital switching

Peter Braffitt, General Manager at Gemeco Marine Accessories, gave a presentation on digital switching systems to a packed room at last year’s NMEA Conference & Expo. We talked to him recently about multi-function displays as a central element in that application. Here are excerpts from what he told us:

Using MFDs as an interface for digital switching is becoming more common for several reasons. One is because you can set up a sidebar with priority buttons to quickly access popular circuits like lighting, or to monitor the status of a device such as a bilge pump. Sidebars leave the MFD screens free for navigation activities without having to go through multiple button presses to get to common switching functions. Even with quick access toolbars I don’t see people using digital switching as the sole method for activating a critical circuit like a horn or wipers. Boaters tend to appreciate also having a physical button for circuits of that type.

The evolution of MFDs for digital switching has come on amazingly fast—it’s really exploded in the last couple of years. A lot of boat builders are now controlling some of the boat’s circuits over digital switching. One reason is that NMEA 2000 has been more strongly adopted—making it very easy to add a device. Second, you can control circuits from a touchscreen interface where you’re already running your fingers and performing other functions.

Installing digital switching seems complicated to someone who’s never done it, but actually it simplifies an installation. If you want to control one circuit from multiple locations onboard, digital switching allows you to do that without complicated wiring. We have customers who want physical buttons at the helm but touchscreens in the stateroom. It’s just a matter of hanging a control device somewhere on the network, and it requires fewer "homeruns” in the wiring.

As for reliability and redundancy, digital switching systems are pretty robust—they don’t seem to have many problems. Most have easy ways to manually override a digitally switched circuit, and all have failsafe provisions. Some are self-healing where you can add a new component that will automatically learn the system program again so you don’t have to reprogram. Most people locate buttons or switches at the helm for critical devices such as navigation lights, or put a small bank of switches under the console or in an overhead as a failsafe.

Looking ahead, I think we’ll see more automation to not only control a function but to act on "what if” statements. For example, if an indicator shows that a hatch is opened a light turns on automatically. Or an installer can tie in an occupancy sensor so that when it senses no occupancy for a period of time the lights turn off. I call it synthesizing circuits—combining parameters to control circuits automatically or in conjunction with another action. People experience this kind of thing at home and expect it onboard, where system integration is very similar. Automation provides an added level of convenience and will certainly aid in industry adoption. Once a circuit can be controlled digitally it also lends itself well to integration with AI interfaces, allowing voice control of vessel systems and audible feedback of a circuit’s status. Imagine adding the convenience of "Alexa, turn on my navigation lights” or "Google, what is my current engine room temperature?”

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